County’s airport vital to Tri-State economy

Published 8:54 am Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Eliminating the Lawrence County Airport would have far reaching effects beyond Lawrence County and will have a major impact on the Tri-State.

The leaders that we have elected and appointed to county commission and economic development councils should recognize that air service is one of the leading factors in determining whether industry and business development occurs.

Before deciding to close the airport, I challenge our leaders to really think about the far reaching effects of their decision over the long term effects of making a weak economy more fragile.

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Lawrence County airport airspace sits within the confines of the radar service area of Tri-State airport in Huntington. Tri-State Airport approach provides an essential service of separation to commercial and general aviation aircraft.

As evidenced by the recent federal government sequester, Tri State airport was threatened with losing approach control facilities. Aircraft departing and arriving Lawrence County are included in the “targets” that the approach facility receives in a year.

Among other factors, those targets add up to whether the justification exists to keep those separation services for that particular airspace.

The loss of any additional services at Tri State airport will only further the possibility of losing air traffic control services in our region.

Even worse, losing commercial airline service because of degraded services available to the airlines.

Relocation of the airport according to our leaders is a possibility. Relocation of the airport, however, is not realistic.

I received my first few flight instructional hours at Lawrence County Airport back in the late 1990’s. After graduation from Marshall University and furthering my education in aviation, a few years later I would return as a flight instructor at Attitude Aviation, which currently provides aviation services at Lawrence County airport.

As a flight instructor, I taught individuals from various backgrounds. Many of my students chose to fly recreationally, and some who chose it as a career. Notably, one Marathon Petroleum executive from Texas, who chose Lawrence County because of the facilities.

Many instructors at Lawrence County Airport have moved further along in their professional careers as captains and first officers for world leading airlines flying large, transport and corporate aircraft, including myself.

My nearly 10 years as a captain at a national airline, my travels have given me insight on how the community should support the Lawrence County Airport. I fly into large and medium size cities on a daily basis. Three cities that come to mind are Peoria, Ill.; Moline, Ill.; and Williston, N.D.

The first two I mention because of their similarities in geography that they share with the Tri-State. Moline and Peoria have access to rail, barge, interstate highways and air transportation. Peoria is home to the Caterpillar corporation and Moline is home to John Deere.

Because of the strength of the economy and the large corporations that have made a home in the above mentioned medium size cities, airlines provide air service to Americas largest hubs such as Chicago and Atlanta. These companies rely on scheduled airline service to connect their employees to cities throughout the world.

Williston, N.D. has seen the fortunes of the oil industry rapidly expand in the past 10 years. I was amazed at how they were able to transform essentially an airport the size of Lawrence County airport, although a longer runway, into an airport that had airline service.

A large percentage of the passengers who fly into and out of Williston are employees of large oil corporations that are actively involved in the exploration of oil. These are jobs that pay $60,000 a year to start.

Growth is expected to continue at such a fast pace in Williston that hotels cannot be built to keep up with the growth. Hotel rooms are at such a premium that would rival the rate of a nightly stay at a hotel on Times Square. Tent cities are being erected to accommodate the workers.

Retail wages in this area top $12 an hour because of the demand. These are income tax dollars going back into the infrastructure of these towns. Earned dollars being spent in the local economies.

Those possibilities exist for this area as well.

Lawrence County and surrounding areas have many untapped resources to offer. As evidenced by the resources that we have available in this area of the country through fracking and natural gas exploration, our county leaders should not sell the Tri-State short in hopes of developing a retail shopping center.

Lawrence County is home to many bright and hardworking people. I challenge our county leaders to take a look at the “big” picture.

Ask yourself, is the legacy you left as a commissioner the possibility of a retail shopping center, or, the legacy in which you concentrated your efforts to bring industry, natural resources and business to this area?

Adam Heighton